[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 March 2006, 13:17 GMT
China's rural millions left behind
By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC News, Beijing

Children eating in rural Anhui province - archive photo
China's reforms have seen millions of people leaving the countryside
In Britain people tend to think of the countryside as a rural idyll, a bucolic landscape of green fields and happy folk.

In China, if they can, people try not to think about the countryside at all.

When they do, it is not of a rural idyll, but a grim, dirty place where people are poor and life is harsh.

In Britain the countryside is somewhere to escape to. In China it is somewhere to escape from.

China's urban population has a strong tendency to look down on country folk. The word for "farmer" in Chinese has a distinctly pejorative flavour.

"Rural people are of a very low quality" is a phrase you often hear in Beijing.

And rural people are not just treated like second class citizens, they are.

Almost everything in the countryside is worse than in the cities, according to popular belief.

People say the schools are bad, the teachers awful; there are very few doctors, and hardly any clinics or hospitals; local communist party officials are invariably corrupt, and often abuse their power for personal gain.

In the last decade, two things have happened to make the tension between the city and the countryside worse.

Urban shift

One is that the countryside has begun moving to the city. Between 100 and 150 million Chinese peasants have quit their villages and headed to the cities to look for work.

From 1953, people classed as rural or urban residents
Rural residents denied rights of city dwellers, mainly to stop them migrating to towns
System now faces abolition in 11 out of 23 provinces

The second is that the city is moving to the countryside. As China's urban centres boom they are gobbling up farmland at a voracious rate. A total of 16 million acres (6,475,000 hectares) have gone in the last 20 years.

The tens of millions who have moved to the cities find themselves treated like second class citizens there too. In a system akin to South Africa's apartheid, people born in rural China find it almost impossible to become full urban residents.

They are denied access to urban housing and to urban schooling for their children. Work is found in factories or on construction sites. Life is a tenuous, hand-to-mouth existence.

Last year the Chinese internet buzzed with the story of a rural migrant from north-west China sentenced to death for a brutal double murder. The man had stabbed his victims to death during a fight at a construction site. The argument began when he went to claim back-wages. It turned out the man had not been paid for two years.

Land grab

The only security these rural migrants enjoy is their piece of land back in their village.

But that too is now under threat.

Migrant workers in Chinese city - archive picture
Newcomers to the cities are treated as an underclass

In China, agricultural land is owned communally. In theory each village owns the land around it. Each family holds its bit of land on a long term lease.

Farmland used to be almost worthless. But as China's cities expand it is now in high demand.

What happened to the village of Yangge, on the edge of Beijing, is typical.

Yangge sits along a picturesque river 25km north of the city centre. It is just the sort of area in which Beijing's wealthy new middle class might like to own a spacious suburban villa.

That is exactly what a Beijing property developer thought. He paid several million dollars to acquire the land from the local township government. The villagers were never consulted, and they saw none of the money.

Now, less than 100m from the village, rows of huge new American-style homes are rising out of the fields. A thousand are to be built. The asking price - close to $1m each.

All over China land disputes like this are turning violent.

Late last year three people were shot dead by police in southern Guangdong province during a violent protest against another land seizure. Villagers said the number killed was closer to 20.

The anger and bitterness emanating from China's countryside is not so much about poverty, as about fairness.

People see their land being taken from them and then turned into $1m-homes. They see local officials lining their own pockets, while the villagers get nothing. They spend years away from home working on construction sites and in Dickensian factories, only to be cheated of their wages by unscrupulous bosses.

This week Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao promised to bring prosperity to China's countryside. But without fundamental change in the way China works, its 700 million peasant farmers will remain second class citizens.

Do you have any experience of life in rural China? Do you agree with the image depicted in this piece.

I just returned from three weeks in China, most of which was spent on one of its rural Islands. I was disturbed by conditions in China that were much worse than those that I had in seen in places like Nicaragua and Guatemala. We saw appalling sanitary conditions and I am not just talking about the WCs, I am talking about the tea houses where dogs and pigs freely roam looking for table scraps. We was also were the beneficiaries of a little corruption when a local party official found out we were in town. We went to China expecting to see a super power on the rise, but what he saw was a wealth gap so extreme that we could not even afford to buy items in Shanghai's new shopping malls.
David Fields, Maseok, South Korea (formerly of the USA)

I was born in the countryside of China. As I grew up, the living conditions had improved a lot. There is a large population in China, peasant farmers are the majority. It's impossible for the government to make the farmers' livese as good as urban residents in a short time! Please be patient with Chinese government!
Zhiju Liu, NC, USA

"land disputes are turning violent". In some areas in rural china, this is the case, local government official couldn't wait to make something out of this historical trend. But in my area, which is the so called "more developed" coastal regions, farmers are mostly properly compensated for leaving their homes and are being allcated new homes near populous town centres.
Brian Wong, China


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific